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Richard Nelson’s four Apple Family plays are what you might call hyper-contemporary. The story goes that Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of New York’s Public Theater, asked the prolific Tony-and-Olivier-Award-winning playwright Richard Nelson for a capital-P Political Play, maybe something about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nelson countered with a proposal to write something more intimate, albeit no less ambitious: a series of plays about a family talking politics—a clan of smart, argumentative New Yorkers and ex-New Yorkers (the setting is Rhinebeck, a village of 8,000 about a hundred miles north of Manhattan), but a family nonetheless. Their conversations might reflect something of the national mood, if one believes in such things.
To provide some sense of occasion, each play was set on a day of historic or political note, and opened at the Public on the day in which it takes place. The last of them, Regular Singing, was set (and first staged) on Nov. 22, 2013. At the same time, 230 miles southwest, Studio Theatre began its repertory of the first two Apple plays, That Hopey Changey Thing and Sweet and Sad. They took place on Election Day 2010 and the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, respectively.
Now director Serge Seiden has reunited his dream-team cast from two years ago to reprise their roles as the elder members of the cantankerous but loving Apple clan. As with the first pair, these dramas take place entirely around the dining table of the house that middle-aged sisters Barbara and Marian (Sarah Marshall and Elizabeth Pierotti) share with their elderly Uncle Benjamin (Ted van Griethuysen), who was a well-known screen and stage actor before a heart attack forced him into retirement. In the years since, he’s begun to suffer from dementia. Again the plays unfold in something close to real time, although the sound of a chime will occasionally signal the passage of a few moments. The propitious occasions of Sorry and Regular Singing are, respectively, Election Day 2012 and the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
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While the Apples—all bruised liberals, though Richard (Rick Foucheux), who works for the administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, is more disaffected than the rest—have plenty of time for the political, the matter before them in Sorry is more personal: It’s the very early hours of the day on which they will take Benjamin to an assisted-living facility, his functionality and inhibitions having at last eroded beyond his nieces’ ability to manage. Eldest sister Barbara insists she’s still up to task, despite behavior from Benjamin that have the others fearing for her safety. He’s spied on her in the shower, and committed other offenses she refuses to discuss.
What makes the Apples’ decision more agonizing are Benjamin’s sporadic bursts of heartbreaking lucidity, even eloquence. He reads aloud from his own journal—one from which Barbara has selectively torn out pages—in a resonant voice, seeming to recognize neither the hand of the lines or the cogent insights they contain as his own. He never notes the date in his journal entries, but it’s evident some version of Benjamin, if not the one who spends most of the play slumped over in the corner, understands that his memory can no longer be trusted. He’s trying to adapt to life with this nightmarish disease.
The play’s most contentious relationship is in Barbara’s pitiless attacks on the recently divorced Richard, who—in the diagnosis of his sisters, particularly in Regular Singing—buries himself in work to avoid processing his grief and rage over the dissolution of his marriage. His wife left him for another man, but the kids blame him for their breakup. How could that not be agonizing?
One of the great pleasures of Nelson’s writing is that he has endowed each Apple with all the curiosity and myopia of a real person. Jane (Kimberly Schraf), the author, is researching a book about privacy and when the expectation of it became (briefly) a part of life. The well-read Apples’ various interests, and sincere interest in one another, give Nelson license to fill their mouths with weird kernels of history that no doubt fascinate him: Jane reveals the dissolute secret history of Emanuel Leutze’s painting “Washington Crossing the Hudson.” Richard tells the tale of the gruesome death of President-elect Franklin Pierce’s 11-year-old son in a bizarre train accident, right in front of his parents, just days before Pierce’s inauguration in 1853.
In Regular Singing, Marian’s ex-husband lays dying in a bedroom upstairs, attended by his mother, neither of whom we meet. Marian’s marriage to him could not survive the suicide of their 21-year-old daughter, a tragedy explored in one of the prior plays but only briefly alluded to here. Even so, she’s taken it upon herself to make the last months of his life as comfortable as possible. These considerations of mortality lead Barbara, a high school teacher, to share excerpts from her students’ ruminations on death. “One of the perks of being a teacher is you have people who will try to answer your questions,” she says.
Whether or not you’ve an appetite for a collective four hours of strangers’ family meals at the beginning of family-meal season is something only you can know. But the quiet brilliance of the writing and acting on display in this stirring pair of chamber dramas makes them urgent, if not essential.
The Public Theater has commissioned a new trio of real-time plays from Nelson for 2016. They’re about the Gabriels, the Apples’ neighbors in Rhinebeck. The first one opens in March; the last one, on Election Night. It will be interesting to see if Nelson can mine even more from this life-under-porous-glass approach. I don’t have a reason in the world to doubt him.
1501 14th St. NW. $20–$81. (202) 332-3300. studiotheatre.org